To be Jewish, must one subscribe to dogma? Must one develop a personal faith? Isn’t it good enough to be a Jew at heart? What is the place of God in Jewish identity? Can’t one behave ethically without believing in God?
RABBI DAVID LOCKETZ /Â Bet Shalom Congregation
The goal of Judaism is not to convince people toÂ believeÂ in God.
Ranging from the Talmudic rabbis to Maimonides to the modern era of Jewish philosophers and scholars, there have been a myriad of theological understandings. What exactly would one claim youÂ haveÂ to believe?
The goal of Judaism rather is to help structure our lives in a way that allows holiness to take root in the world… regardless of how one understands that source of holiness. Many have tried to answer the question of whether Judaism is aÂ nationÂ or aÂ religion.Â Of course we are both. But there is no doubt that you can be a good Jewish person when focusing more on theÂ actionsÂ of Judaism rather than theÂ beliefÂ system.
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hannipol, has been famously quoted as saying, “In the coming world they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
In other words, “Why did you not live to your greatest potential?” This question is a metaphor that reminds us that action is the most important thing… that we must live lives full ofÂ gemilut chasadim, acts of love and kindness; feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, seeking peace where there is strife, and helping those in need. To do these things, with a heart open to the possibility of new understandings that come with every holy act of making the world a better place: that is the goal of Judaism.
RABBI CHARNI FLAME SELCH /Â B’nai Emet Synagogue
My simple answer is no. Atheism is not only the belief that there are no gods but also that the belief in gods is wrong. I believe that true atheists are few and far between and that they would not be able to connect to Judaism because of the second part of their belief.
But questioning the existence of God, agnosticism, does not conflict with Judaism. The name Israel means to have struggled with God. To be the Children of Israel connects us with a heritage of struggling not only with what God wants of us but also with the belief that there is God.
Each generation has struggled with the relevancy of traditions and how to be good Jews while balancing input from society around us. The joy of Judaism is the nuances, the variety, and the potential for personalization of the communal responsibilities.
Jewish rituals and traditions are beautiful. As we practice them, we each find different interpretations and symbolism, which makes them our own. For some of us the belief that the practices connect us to God is important. For others, connecting to our heritage and to our history is what’s important. While we may not be certain there is a God, connecting to our ancestors who were certain allows us to continue our own questioning and our own struggle.
True atheists believe there are no gods — they are done wrestling. Judaism is challenging. It challenges our spirit, our bodies and our minds. And by wrestling through the challenge, we grow not only as Jews but as human beings as well.
Do you have questions about Judaism and Jewish living? Members of the Minnesota Rabbinical Assoication (MRA) are ready to answer your questions. “Your Jewish questions” is compiled by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman. Have a question for the rabbis? Write Rabbi Perlman at: firstname.lastname@example.org.